Flight Review: Virgin Atlantic Upper Class JFK-London Heathrow
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I’m a Virgin-virgin no more: I recently flew Virgin Atlantic for the first time, sitting in the British airline’s Upper Class from New York’s JFK to London’s Heathrow. For the most part, my first Virgin experience on their Airbus A340 was a good- but I’d have preferred to try the airline’s new Upper Class Suites, presently only available on its A330.
Booking the Award
Virgin Atlantic and Delta inked a partnership in 2013, which is awesome for those with SkyMiles, because you can redeem for Virgin Atlantic flights without the huge surcharges that Virgin Atlantic charges their own frequent flyers on awards. Plus, since Virgin is a partner, awards always price at the saver level, so you’re looking at 60,000 Skymiles and $214 for a JFK-LHR roundtrip in economy or 125,000 miles and $332 for Upper Class. Most of those fees are not levied by the airlines, but instead the pesky United Kingdom Passenger Service Charge ($76) and the United Kingdom Air Passenger Duty ($236).
Comparatively, using Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club for JFK-LHR roundtrip: economy awards are 35,000 and $472 ($258 of which is imposed by Virgin Atlantic), Premium Economy awards are 55,000 miles and $790 ($458 carrier charges) and Upper Class for 80,000 miles and $790 ($458 carrier charges).
You can also use Hawaiian Airlines miles to book Virgin Atlantic without huge fees, as outlined in this post. Delta, Hawaiian and Virgin Atlantic are all 1:1 transfer partners of American Express Membership Rewards.
JFK Terminal 4
Virgin Atlantic operates out of Terminal 4, also home to Delta’s new terminal. If you’re flying Upper Class, you’ll want to get dropped off at the beginning of the terminal at the Delta SkyPriority check-in. Once there, there are several Virgin Atlantic dedicated check-in desks. My total check-in was less than 2 minutes and I was on my to security, sadly without TSA Pre-Check since Virgin Atlantic is not currently an eligible airline.
Virgin Atlantic refers to each of its airport lounges as a Clubhouse, and the JFK outpost is 10,000 square feet with a long, curving, bar, its own spa and a full-service restaurant. Opened in March 2012 above gate A5 in Terminal 4, the JFK Clubhouse Free still manages to have that new-lounge smell, with glamorous lighting, lots of leather, and streamlined designer furniture that looks like a space-age mix of The Rat Pack, The Jetsons and Austin Powers.
To gain access to the Clubhouse, you must either be:
· An Upper Class passenger on a Virgin Atlantic flight
· A Virgin Atlantic Flying Club Gold member
· A First or Suites Class passenger on a Singapore Airlines flight
· A Singapore Airlines Solitaire PPS card-holder
· A First or Business passenger on TAM
You’re also welcome here if you’re flying First or Main Cabin Select on Virgin America (or are an Elevate Gold member), but you’ll be charged an entrance fee of $75 per adult and $40 per child between the ages of 5-12.
One you gain entry, just about everything here is free – including Wifi, full meals, alcohol and short spa and salon treatments that use Dr. Hauschka, Truefitt & Hill, and Bumble & Bumble products. (Longer spa treatments require a small fee, averaging less than $40.) In what turned out to be a genius way to kick off my journey, I indulged in a complimentary pre-flight facial administered by Ebony, a truly awesome aesthetician, on a very comfortable treatment bed that looked out onto the runway (and a Virgin America plane). Keep in mind that spa treatments won’t be available to you 50 minutes before your flight, so be sure to leave time to take advantage of this perk.
Sadly, I didn’t have enough time to use the pool table, try a signature “Virgin Rose” cocktail (a combination of tea-infused gin, lemon juice, rosewater simple syrup, blood orange juice and Pimm’s), sample the Clubhouse’s afternoon tea service or even have time for their full dinner spread. Instead, I quickly grabbed a duck lettuce-wrap and sipped a glass of champers, then got down to the business of boarding.
To be frank, the boarding process was a bit of a cluster. I had to wait on the hot jet bridge for over 15 minutes, and there was no separate boarding door for Upper Class – oh, well! Once I finally arrived at the plane, the boarding process became more smooth, as evidenced by this video I took:
After takeoff, I was given a little bowl of crispy-salty potato chips and Lanson Black Label Champagne from France in an old-school glass. I was not unhappy about this.
Within a few minutes, the lights dimmed throughout the cabin, and I was (theoretically) on my way to a relaxing flight.
In addition to a pair of pajamas, I was given a small amenity kit made from rPET, a material made from crushed plastic bottles. The dark grey fabric is sturdy and stain resistant, and my inbound version of the kit was designed to double as a travel wallet. Aside from the novelty of using recycled materials, though, it was nothing special, for a first-class flight or otherwise; it just offered the usual socks, eyeshades, toothbrush and toothpaste, as well as tissues, ear plugs and a pen. Flight attendants also handed out pajamas (or pyjamas)- a comfortable cotton shirt and pant combo, though I was sad they didn’t have onesies available!
Seat and Cabin Configuration
My flight was aboard Virgin Atlantic’s A340, where the 12 Upper Class rows are laid out in a herringbone 1 x 1 x 1, and the cabin features a bar you can actually pull up to in order to have a cocktail. These were the original Upper Class Suites, rather than the sexy new ones available on selected A330 flights to JFK, Washington, DC, Boston, Delhi and Mumbai.
Though my older Upper Class seat was 22” wide across the cushion and 33” wide across the shoulders, and a 6’6” long, lie-flat bed, I felt it was a tight, cramped fit for me, with thinly-padded cushions. I also felt exposed, as my seat was fully open to the aisle, and felt the seat’s overall functionality was a bit awkward. It actually tilts forward when reclining into bed, so you need to get up and remove your pillows from behind. I didn’t love the entertainment system with its small 10.4″ screen, and the tiny overhead bins weren’t large enough to hold a normal 22″ carry-on suitcase.
The one bright spot was ironically very dark: when the lights go out on a Virgin Atlantic A340, they really go out. Even though I felt a little cramped, I was able to get a solid 3 hours of sleep (not bad for a short 6 hour hop to London).
Food and Wine
The food service, choices and preparations were slightly above average, in my experience. The wines I tried were excellent, as well.
The steak was decent..nothing special, but nothing awful.
As well as the cheese plate – which I would have happily eaten even down on terra firma.
I was surprised to find that my favorite meal was their breakfast, since I usually hate breakfast on airplanes. The eggs were creamy (instead of the dried/fried normal eggs) and the meats weren’t too bad.
Arrival was a seamless experience. We pulled in a little early to Heathrow’s Terminal 3, and were given fast track passes to ease us through customs in only a few minutes. Our bags came out right away, and before I knew it, I was Heathrow Expressing my way on the train into London.
I was a little bummed to miss the Clubhouse at Heathrow because I’ve heard it’s amazing (with its Cowshed spa, Grey Goose loft bar with a view of the tarmac, a small theater, a library and more), but I was eager to get to my hotel to prepare for a busy day on the ground.
Compared to Rivals
I was impressed with Virgin Atlantic’s lounge, service and food, but on an overseas flight, I need a little more elbow, leg and breathing room than Virgin Atlantic’s older version of the Upper Class suite can offer. On my recent journeys across the pond, I’ve much preferred American Airlines’ new business class and Delta’s BusinessElite, though Virgin Atlantic does beat out British Airway’s cramped Club World in my opinion.
Here are specs on these four different lie-flat seats, which I’ve ranked in order of my favorite to least favorite:
American 777-300 – Business Class
PITCH: 43-59 inches. WIDTH: 21 inches upright, 26 inches reclined. RECLINE: 180 degrees. LENGTH: 6.5 feet.
Configuration: 1 x 2 x 1
Number of rows/seats: 13 rows, 52 seats
Delta 767-400 – BusinessElite
PITCH: 76.5 inches.* WIDTH: 20.5 inches. RECLINE: 180 degrees. LENGTH. 6.4 feet.
Configuration: 1 x 2 x 1
Number of rows/seats: 40
*Note that bulkhead seats have a pitch of 81 inches
Virgin Atlantic A340- Upper Class
PITCH: 79.5-78 inches.WIDTH: 22 inches (33 inches across the shoulders). RECLINE: 180 degrees. LENGTH: 6.6 feet.
Configuration: 1 x 1 x 1
Number of rows/seats: 12 rows, 34 seats
British Airways 747-400 – Club World
PITCH: 72 inches. WIDTH: 20 inches. RECLINE: 180 degrees. LENGTH: 6 feet.*
Configuration: Two levels in two configurations – the lower deck is a 2 x 4 x 2, and the upper deck is always a 2 x 2
Number of rows/seats: The entire plane is Club World, and the two version have either 52 or 70 seats
*Note that I’d only choose an exit row seat on this double-decker plane, for the extra room
I would consider giving Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class another whirl to London – but next time on an A330 outfitted with the new Upper Cabin suites.
Have you flown Virgin Atlantic? What are your thoughts?